May 17, 2014 11:04:24 PM
If a majority of councilmen vote in favor of a $5 million bond issue when they meet Tuesday, a 1.1 mill property tax increase is coming to residents and business owners in Columbus.
That much has been clear since city leaders began mulling the issue in late March to fund drainage and street improvements. What had not been clear was which inadequacies in each category could be addressed with the money and whether or not the money would be used to address the most pressing needs city-wide or split evenly between each of the city's six wards.
City project managing firm J5 Broaddus has been working individually with councilmen to pinpoint the worst infrastructure issues in their wards and separate them into two categories: drainage and sidewalk needs and road paving needs.
About 10 percent, or $500,000, of the $5 million loan would go toward engineering, project managing and bond counsel fees. If an equal amount of the remaining money is divvied evenly among wards, $750,000 in infrastructure needs would be addressed in each of them.
J5 Broaddus Senior Project Manager Robyn Eastman said as of Friday afternoon, his firm had completed lists of needs for each ward that can guide councilmen if the bond issue passes. None of the lists have yet been made available to the public.
"The councilmen have had a hand in setting the priorities in their respective wards," Eastman said. "We have not set a citywide priority as of yet because it has not been reviewed by the city as a whole. I'm waiting for guidance from the city on that."
Spending plan remains contentious
During a public hearing on the bond issue, some residents raised concerns about dividing the bond money evenly rather than addressing the most pressing infrastructure issues on a citywide basis.
Asked during a recent interview, Columbus Mayor Robert Smith said he believed it was likely the bond money would be split evenly between each ward.
"If you don't split everything among the six wards, you're going to ask for hell between the councilmen, I think," Smith said. "If you prioritized it by the ones that need it the most, some of the councilmen would feel like, 'Hey, I'm getting the shaft on this.' That's why we came up with splitting it down the middle. It would be sensible to do it priority-wise, but the councilmen don't see it like that."
Ward 3 councilman Charlie Box was one elected official who said an even split for all was the best way to go.
"It sounds good in theory, but I don't see how it could work because there are so many roads that need attention," Box said. "Hemlock (Street) needs some attention, but if you say we've got roads in another ward that are worse and you push it back four or five years, it gets to be critical. When you sit down and look at all the work that needs to be done all over the city, is it fair to make one ward look like Taj Mahal and other wards have to wait five or six years or longer to get work done, or can you spread it out and do a little bit in each ward every year and make it fair to everyone? The citizens in one ward are just as important as the citizens in another."
Not every councilman feels dividing evenly by six would be the most prudent way of spending the money. Ward 5 councilman Kabir Karriem said it should be spent based on the needs of the city as a whole. Karriem voted against a notice of intent for a bond issue last month but said it was not because he was against the bond. Rather, he said, he felt more time was needed to review the agreement.
"I think it's incumbent on the mayor and council to look at the needs of the entire city and allocate the money accordingly," Karriem said. "Some needs of the city are greater than others. We need to take care of the needs of the city and I think that's the best approach."
He added that there hasn't been open, public discussion about distribution of the money. A bond issue for similar improvements passed in 2010 was split evenly in each ward, Karriem said, but that doesn't mean the city is forced to do the same thing with this funding.
"Maybe that time we split the money evenly was the best approach at the time, but I just believe we should really look at the needs of the entire city," Karriem said. "I want to do the right thing by addressing those urgent needs that are facing the entire city. I'm hoping like minds can come together with a reasonable approach with this bond money."
Ward 4 councilman Marty Turner said the lists J5 has compiled with each councilman should be further prioritized to identify the biggest deficiencies in the city regardless of which ward they're in.
"Some of the wards have been neglected for so long and that's making the infrastructure weaker," Turner said. "The city will end up paying more money to try to fix that if we let it degrade. Some areas are better than others. If they need to fix a simple thing that doesn't cost as much and they can get it done without using all the money allocated to each ward, I think it needs to be turned over to the other wards."
Ward 6 councilman Bill Gavin said however the money is divided, councilmen whose wards join each other should work together and have continuity between projects in their wards.
"My ward joins ward 4 and part of ward 2," Gavin said. "We could all come together and say, 'I want to pave this one and I want to pave that one,' and then we may can connect some of this paving to make it a whole lot better."
Councilmen Gene Taylor and Joseph Mickens could not be reached for comment on this story.
A 1.1 mill increase would mean an extra $11 a year in property taxes for an owner of a $100,000 property. The public will be allowed to speak to the council before it votes on the issue. The council meets 5 p.m. Tuesday at the Columbus Municipal Complex.
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.
1. Arrest report 10-6-15 COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY
2. Columbus loses a football legend COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY
3. City Council denies request for ordinance change COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY